6 tips for making the transition from AP to principal

This year, I’m serving as the Principal at Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Montgomery County Public Schools – my first year as a principal after 10 years as an AP. While moving from AP to principal shifts only one seat over, the difference in the role can feel tremendous.

As an AP, my responsibilities centered on carrying out the school vision. As the principal, I’m the custodian of that vision. I set the vision and work to ensure all the pieces move toward it. This role requires me to think big-picture in new ways, to engage in vision-casting and to empower the people I work with to execute the vision.

I’ve loved the transition, and I’m thankful to the principals I worked with over the years who helped prepare me. I know there are several assistant principals out there considering making the jump, so I want to share the steps that I’ve found most helpful as I’ve stepped into the principal role.

What to do while you’re still serving as an Assistant Principal:

Step 1: Lead initiatives that hone your ability to vision-cast.

As a principal, we have to consider school-wide structures and processes and evaluate whether they’re serving the larger vision and how they might need to shift. To me, the three big pillars of leadership are academic success, student well-being and school operations. While in the AP role, taking on initiatives in these key areas can help sharpen your big-picture lens. Before I stepped into my current role I worked with several principals who gave me opportunities to lead on certain initiatives. It was my job to make the most of those opportunities. I look back on each of those opportunities as pivotal pieces of my preparation for the principal role.

Step 2: Gather feedback that enables you to quantify the impact of your initiatives.

If you get the opportunity to oversee an initiative, it’s imperative to go further than managing the finite project and think longer-term by implementing a plan to quantify the impact. What is the experience for students and staff? How does your work improve outcomes? And then, based on your findings, what shifts need to be made to the next iteration to increase the positive impact?

You might invite staff feedback by giving out a survey during a staff meeting. To gather student feedback, you might consider a focus group. When you bring together 30 or so kids, feed them pizza and ask them questions, they’ll loosen up and give you some really candid and direct responses. Include a representative body of students in a conversation to collect anecdotal feedback, and then look for patterns and trends.

All of this feedback will help your school community build on your learnings and equip you with foundational experience when you find yourself leading initiatives as a principal.

What to do when you step into your first principal role:

Step 3: Remember that building trust is a matter of daily presence.

I believe that we, educators, are in the people business. We serve students, we serve communities, we support families and we serve teachers. Stepping into a principal role means that you’re stepping into a community in transition, and establishing trust is a critical requirement for being able to move forward in service of the school’s mission and vision. Trust-building isn’t about strategies, it’s about consistency. It’s a daily practice. We need to demonstrate a solid rapport that our communities feel with us day in and day out. At the beginning especially, each interaction is our opportunity to show our community who we are. And then show them again, tomorrow, that “I’m still this person.” It’s about being authentic with people so they can see we’re here to do right by students.

Step 4: Spend your first year discovering your school community and how vision maps onto reality.

When a shift in role leads us into a new school community, it’s so important to honor the work already being done. We need to immerse ourselves in the school’s recent history. What school improvement work was enacted recently? What mission and vision have the staff been following? The first year for a principal is a year of discovery. For me, the guiding question has been: Are we who we say we are as a school?

If the school’s mission and vision say we’re about equitable outcomes for all students, then I’m looking for where that value shows up in our observable practices and data. If we say that our job is to get all students above grade level before leaving middle school, I’m asking how many high school credits our kids are walking away with after eighth grade. How rigorous is our instruction? How many students are taking advanced courses?

When I later suggest changes rooted in the school’s history and data, honoring history helps build trust with my staff. It shows them that I’m not making changes unilaterally, but that, as a new member of their leadership body, I’m leading our community toward the core values they already believe in.

Step 5: Lean on coaches.

I’m grateful to have support from within my school district and affinity group, the School Leaders of Color Collective (SLOCC). My coaches have joined me when I’m observing teachers, leading staff meetings and supporting one-on-one coaching sessions, so I have support as I continue to grow into my new role as a principal. Thanks to that coaching, I never feel like I’m in this alone. Keeping myself open to learning and growing is as essential as a principal as it was in my earliest days of teaching.

Step 6: Looking beyond year one to build momentum in year two.

At my school, two common instructional priorities are student-to-student academic discourse and culturally responsive teaching practices. As a new leader, I was able to work with my leadership team to identify shifts within our instructional focus. I’m excited about continuing this work, gathering data and beginning to see some instructional gains.

After a first year of learning, discovery and trust-building as principal; I’ve learned that a second year holds the opportunity to build momentum. We’re looking forward to finishing the year strong and then building on that for next year.